RICHMOND, Va. -- In his 16 years as director of the Richmond Police Athletic League, Perry Barber isn't in his uniform a lot.
At least not around the kids with whom he works on a weekly basis. They get used to seeing him as a civilian....and get caught off guard when reminded of his day job.
"I had to go to court one day," Barber recalled. "Even though I told my kids I was a police officer, they see me dressed like this and I come here in my uniform on day. They're like, you really are, it blows them away."
That is one of the goals of the PAL program. To get kids from the inner city to see the police as people just like they are and to break down barriers of mistrust that may exist.
The other is to have fun...but learn something at the same time.
"Showing them a fun time, but also expecting them to do what's right," Barber said. "We mentor the kids, that's one of our priorities as well. Have a good time, but teach them life lessons."
Joseph Johnson is one of the kids currently in the PAL program, playing for the Albert Hill Middle School 49ers. Barber believes Johnson could one day play college football. Right now, he's playing for a different reason.
"Something to do. Get off the streets. Just have fun," Johnson said. Without PAL, he added "I'd be getting in trouble. Doing dumb stuff."
If Johnson needs any inspiration for his goals, he doesn't have to look far.
Tyler Wilkins is a receiver for the Richmond Spiders and was a standout at L.C. Bird high school. He's also a product of the PAL program, having joined in 2nd grade to play basketball.
"They take care of your kids," said Wilkins, the son of a Richmond police officer. "They build great relationships with them. I think it builds a strong community and creates a great atmosphere between your community members and your police officers."
"You can change anybody's life just by coming here, being involved and it's a great way for kids to have an outlet," Wilkins continued. "It's a great way for them to get away from home and see something new."
Especially if that new sight is how they view the police.
"They're cool," Johnson offered when asked his opinion of law enforcement. "They ain't as bad as some people say."
"Every adult deserves respect," Wilkins said. "That's the atmosphere they put you in. At the same time, when you're punished, you're also uplifted. They love on you a lot."
"The walls have been broken down and we're all friends," Barber said. "At the end of that camp, we all hugged each other, had to say goodbye. There were a lot of tears."
"We get really close in our summer camp."
For more information on the Richmond PAL program, click here or call (804) 646-1832
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